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November 22, 2009

I haven’t spent much time on the roof as I’d like to recently.  The weather’s been pretty unkind of late, plus daylight hours at home are getting rarer.   But yesterday the sky turned the most brilliant of blues and I stole a few precious minutes in my secret garden.  The sycamore tree that towers over it is almost bare now, but still casts the odd last leaf adrift. Those final leaves were dancing about the roof in slow motion on Saturday.  I kept catching them out of the corner of my eye and mistaking them for huge brown butterflies.

Despite wild weather, and gale like wind and rain, the bulbs and seeds I planted in October are all doing really well.  I’ve got lots of green shoots – lettuce and leaves, spring onions and chard, garlic and flowers.  My flat leaved parsley plants are doing especially well.  The tomatoes have just about finished now, the plants are looking very withered and wrinkly.  There are a few lone fruits left on the vines but I don’t expect they’ll turn red.  The squirrels continue to gnaw at them when they get desperate.

It was almost odd being out there yesterday, momentarily just sitting and looking.  After a summer devoted to lounging around in my mini jungle doing not much at all, the roof is now starting to feel like less of an escape.  Even choosing to have the door open, so fresh air can blow into my bedroom, is a decision to freeze these days.  The roof is somewhere to be still, it’s prime daydreaming territory.  As it gets colder, wetter and windier it becomes a much less enticing space.  It’s still wonderful of course, we just don’t spend as much time together these days!

At this time of year one needs bigger expanses of outside space to march across in order to keep warm and to get desirably rosy cheeks.  I went for a wonderful walk a couple of weeks ago with one of my best friends.  It was a weekday treat, we ate soup in a tiny cafe then roamed over Hampstead Heath in the autumn wet for hours.

A downpour left the leaf fall slick and gleaming, and the lichen on tree trunks fluorescing lime green.  Glossy droplets balled on fat pink berries.  When the rain returned tree canopies made protective umbrellas over our heads.  We searched for and we found the hollow tree we’d last visited over two years before.  The tree is huge and bulbous at the bottom, there’s enough room inside it for two people to sit.  It’s seriously special.  More so that day because it had taken us years to re-find it.

The weekend following the weekday walk I headed out west, excitingly on the back of a Vespa.  It took us quite a while to get to the Thames at Twickenham, but it was a beautiful day and the novelty of travelling through London on a scooter kept me thoroughly entertained.  I was pulled to the river at this westerly point because I was determined to see the effects of the annual November draw-off, something I had no idea even happened until the week before.

Every year the weirs at Richmond Lock are lifted to allow the Port of London Authority to carry out essential maintenance works on the lock, weirs and sluices. The weir being lifted allows the river between Richmond Lock and Teddington Lock to drain naturally at low tide and this creates a short annual opportunity to access the lower shore.

The draw off leaves behind the lowest of low tides, with the river around Eel Pie Island emptying to almost nothing.  We slurped around in the oozing mud, crunched over hundreds of mussels and sifted through all kinds of debris.  And I discovered my beautiful red wellies weren’t at all waterproof. It was a brilliant afternoon, if a little damp.

Back in the big smoke, and in the far less idyllic surroundings of Elephant and Castle in south London, I went to an interesting event organised by CABE – the Commission for the Built Environment.  They were launching their new ‘Grey to Green’ campaign, which is all about investing in green infrastructure in our cities.  Similar to the Urban Task Force in the 1990s, they’re calling for a green infrastructure task force, “to galvanise us all to create great green places”.

The campaign asks why grey infrastructure receives so much more investment than green, and questions how wise this is in an era of climate change and in the context of the opportunity to improve public health.  It also highlights the urgent need for more people with the right skills “to manage the living landscape of our towns and cities”.

The landscape designer and writer Dan Pearson delivered a great speech during the event, illustrating the idea of green urban environments with stunning examples of projects in world cities like Tokyo and New York.  Excitingly he also highlighted one of my friend’s gardens as a favourite of his.  She lives on a community of barges that float on the Thames at Tower Bridge, where they nurture beautiful gardens on the boat tops.

I felt heartened by the event, by the fact that advisory bodies like CABE are getting more and more serious about the importance of gardens and green spaces; that they’re pushing for serious action from the powers that be.  Here’s hoping that there soon will be a green infrastructure task force in place, protecting London’s existing green spaces and pushing for the creation of more.

All this makes having the roof garden feel more important.  It may be my indulgent summer retreat, where I laze and pick strawberries straight from the plant, and I may be neglecting it somewhat now as the weather turns nasty, but all year round it is valuable.  It’s an example of a little bit of grey turning into a little bit of green.

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